The History of Phonics Instruction:
Prior to the eighteen hundreds, English language instruction had always been traditionally taught via phonics. However, during the mid-eighteen hundreds the Prussian method of reading instruction, known as Whole Language instruction, overtook phonetic instruction in popularity and became the primary way that language was instructed in the west until the 1950s. Whole Language instruction is based on the idea that students learn phonetics naturally and do not need to be explicitly taught decoding skills. Moreover, Whole Language is based on the idea that learning how to read is a natural process.
During the 1950s there began to be an increasing body of evidence that phonetic instruction might be a superior form of language instruction. By the 1990s this appeared to be a settled debate, as most teachers once again began to teach reading in the formative years of students’ education with phonics. “The International Reading Association’s position paper (1998) on the role of phonics in reading instruction summed it up this way: “Rather than engage in debates about whether phonics should or should not be taught, effective teachers of reading and writing ask when, how, how much, and under what circumstances phonics should be taught.” (Starret, 2006).
However, likely to the surprise of Starret, as postmodern education approaches such as inquiry-based learning grew in popularity, so did resentment towards the phonetic approach. This new wave of teaching philosophy saw explicit or direct instruction methods, as naturally authoritarian, similar to textbook work, homework, and rote memorization. This led to the rise in popularity of Fountas and Pinnell who popularized the idea of implicit instruction or guided reading, as the most important pedagogical concept for reading instruction. In many ways, this new movement of education was a reactionary movement, against more traditional and authoritarian teaching methods, from the past.
The Rise of Balanced Literacy:
With the rise of implicit reading instruction, also came a new concept referred to as Balanced Literacy. Balanced Literacy advocates sought to end the reading wars debate, by combining what they saw as the best of both strategies. While as the name suggests part of the approach is focused on dividing literacy instruction into multiple types and devoting attention to each type: reading fluency, reading comprehension, phonics, and writing. However, Balanced Literacy advocates, like Fountas and Pinnell wanted to avoid the direct instruction methods of the past for phonetic instruction, this led to the idea of teaching phonetics, unsystematically. (Education Weekly, 2019).
Under the Balanced Literacy Approach to phonics, teachers are not supposed to directly teach phonics, but rather use it as a specific intervention for students that are struggling. For example, when a student is struggling with a word a Balanced Literacy teacher would help them sound it out, but would not explicitly teach lessons on phonics. Balanced literacy advocates believe that phonetic instruction should be limited to single letter sounds and not contain any blends (Ibid).